In 21st century Hawaii things sometimes don’t compute. In some cases, the state’s business hardly happens on computers at all.

Hawaii’s shortcomings in digitizing, handling and utilizing important data — as Civil Beat tech columnist Evan Nagle recently reported — can border on the absurd.

Fourteen years into the new millennium, Hawaii still uses hundreds of paper-based information technology systems and a process that generates 80,000 paychecks mostly by hand.

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Hawaii needs new equipment, staff and a more-sharing attitude when it comes to handling its data in a way that serves residents.

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The state continues to use 20th century methods to deal with its finances, policy administration, services to residents and much more. This way of working is the enemy of efficiency and it hampers progress in the state in a myriad of ways.

It can all sound a little wonky, but these things translate into our daily lives in palpable ways, whether a person is seeking basic food assistance or permission to improve or build a home.

Overcoming Hawaii’s status as a tech laggard isn’t really about innovation, it is about modernization.

If you seek to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, “food stamps,” you must fill out applications and then follow up with in-person meetings. For people outside of Honolulu, this can get in the way of job interviews, caring for children or, if a person already has a low-paying job, the search for better-paying employment. Other states have simply moved the whole process online. We should, too.

A similarly efficient logic should apply to people who seek public information through the Freedom of Information Act or who just want to obtain a driver’s license or their tax refund. These processes should respect residents’ time and, in most cases, be as affordable as possible.

Overcoming Hawaii’s status as a tech laggard isn’t really about innovation, it is about modernization. Hawaii, a small state with limited resources, need not gamble on uncertain cutting-edge technology. It can simply learn from other states to better serve the needs of islanders.

New Hampshire’s quest to centralize the state’s data, root out inefficiencies, facilitate better services and save money is instructive. That state’s data was scattered around so that state employees were sometimes uncertain about where it was located. In some cases, as the state’s software configuration manager noted, it was stored on easy-to-misplace CDs and DVDs, or on unreliable local computer drives. Losing significant data can mean regenerating it, which can come at great cost in time and money — and have a domino effect of negative consequences for efficiency.

To modernize, New Hampshire is working to overcome a culture of compartmentalization among state agencies and to convince them to share and cooperate. This is facilitating the centralization of data assets, intellectual property and other useful information that ends up allowing the state to be more responsive to residents and businesses.

With that in mind, here are a few of the basic steps that Gov.-elect David Ige should consider to improve Hawaii’s own information technology systems and processes.

  • Increase the state’s investment in IT. The state needs more modern computer equipment, and it should fully digitize the state’s payroll and accounting systems.
  • Given the scale of the state’s infrastructure maintenance and upgrading needs, Hawaii should hire more IT staff. It should also boost salaries to competitive levels for IT employees, to draw top-notch candidates for those spots.
  • The state should consolidate its many poorly maintained data centers and keep most, if not all, state data in a new geographically secure facility that is safely above sea level and free of natural and human dangers, including hackers. (And if the state is going to invest in building its own facility, it must make sure it has the ability, and the staff, to effectively maintain it.)
  • Like the rest of us, the state should regularly back up its data, and keep that crucial information in at least two other secure locations to protect against a disaster.
  • State agencies should, as in many other states and countries, more readily share information and tech resources with each other. The compartmentalization of data and resources weakens the state’s digital infrastructure. We need integrated solutions to the many challenges Hawaii faces, and that requires breaking down those silos.

As Hawaii heads into what is likely to be another tight budget year at the Legislature, it will be easy to kick certain spending commitments down the road. But it is worth remembering that smart capital investments can pay off quickly.

And if authorities make the right decisions, the state’s residents might one day enjoy the benefits of centralized, cross reference-able and secure data. That would translate into the state spreading a little IT Aloha.

The state Office of Information Management and Technology was funded in part with a $3 million grant from the Omidyar Ohana Fund, a donor advised fund established at the Hawaii Community Foundation through the support of Pierre Omidyar, publisher of Civil Beat, and his wife, Pam.

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